The Coronation of the Virgin:
A Major Acquisition of a Northern Renaissance Altarpiece
October 20, 2006 – May 27, 2007
The Museum has purchased an early 16th century German altarpiece, The Coronation of the Virgin, by Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder. This major acquisition is remarkable not only because few altarpieces come on the art market, but also because of its especially fine condition, including intact side panels. Having undergone conservation at Harvard University’s Straus Center for Conservation, the work is now on view at SCMA . The inaugural installation of the altarpiece coincides with this fall’s Image and Devotion exhibition of Ethiopian objects from Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum.
“SCMA’s collection had nothing comparable to this altarpiece,” says Linda Muehlig, curator of painting and sculpture/associate director for curatorial affairs. “The purchase satisfies a major goal to acquire a medieval or Renaissance work, as identified in the recently completed collections review and acquisition plan.” Dated 1515, this is the earliest known altarpiece by the artist, who was a contemporary of Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein and the foremost painter in Cologne in the first half of the sixteenth century. It was painted for Dr. Peter von Clapis, law professor of the University of Cologne, and his wife, Bela Bonenberg, who are represented in small donor portraits in the central panel.
“The central panel shows the Virgin being crowned by Christ and God the Father, dressed in richly brocaded and jeweled robes,” says Muehlig, “with the Dove of the Holy Spirit above her head. She is surrounded by angels, and kneeling at her feet are the figures of the donors. The proper right (viewer’s left) side panel depicts St. Anno (or possibly Saint Ivo), an eleventh-century Bishop of Cologne (or in St. Ivo’s case, the patron saint of lawyers); the proper left panel depicts St. Anne, the mother of Mary. These figures and their faces are exceptionally well rendered, a testament to Bruyn’s skill as a portrait painter, and are set within beautifully depicted landscapes.”
Muehlig saw the work at the International Art Fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, in March 2005 and was immediately excited by its quality and condition. The purchase was delayed in part as important questions were resolved: some instances of overpainting; whether the side panels were original and 16thcentury or if they were added during the 19th century, as one art historian theorized; and other questions about the integrity of the work. “This altarpiece was clearly of great historical importance,” says Jessica Nicoll, director and chief curator, “but we needed to thoroughly understand its background before committing to a purchase of this magnitude.” Among other findings, a technical analysis of the wood of the side panels showed that they were cut from the same tree as the center panel, refuting the theory that they might have been added later.
Just as important, and far more time-consuming, was extensive provenance investigation performed by Henriette Kets de Vries, then serving as the curatorial assistant for special projects. The work was held in Germany during the Nazi period, so the Museum had to ensure that it was not transferred under duress during the critical 1933–45 timeframe.
Filling an important place in the collection, the new altarpiece offers many possibilities for teaching, according to Professor Craig Felton, a strong supporter of the purchase when it was proposed to the College. “This work is of major significance—not only as a wonderful artistic object in its own right, but as a source for investigations in many areas of study,” says Felton. “The triptych provides a splendid opportunity to study artists’ materials and techniques, to link it with earlier Netherlandish traditions, to compare it with works by Italian artists of the same period, to study religious symbolism and iconography, to investigate family crests and heraldry, to pursue the lives and history of the patrons and their families, to examine portraiture, to study the lives of the patron saints Anno/Ivo and Anne and why they were chosen for this altarpiece, to study period costume, and to consider the relationship of such a work to the geographic-artistic context of Cologne, where Bruyn was to settle and become the major painter of the period.”